The Meaning of Life
I said in a previous post that posts tagged spirituality aren’t to be interpreted as truth-apt and that I wanted to be clearer about how to interpret these posts. Well this post is an exception. Do interpret it as making truth claims. I’m going to be more rigorous than I normally am in spiritual posts and try not to make any false claims. So let’s get started.
The Meaning of Life
It’s 42, obviously.
More sincerely though, there are many levels on which I can attempt to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?”. I’ll start with what most people mean when they ask about the meaning of life.
Most people when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” mean it in a religious sense. Now what that means is they are looking for a single, universal, well-defined answer. Although I call this the “religious” sense of the question, I’ve noticed a person need not actually be religious to treat it seriously. Plenty of atheists treat this question as if it deserves an answer and there are entire secular philosophies with the goal of answering this question. This is the sense of the question for which I have the least respect. To get my point across in one sentence, I can simply ask the rhetorical question “What do you mean by ‘meaning of life’?”. The phrase “meaning of life” doesn’t map to anything in reality. It’s an incoherent question. This is obvious to me, but as always, it’s challenging to show an idea to be incoherent to those who already accept it. How do you prove something doesn’t make sense?
Here’s an analogy: In a sense, saying life has no meaning is equally nonsensical as saying it does have meaning, for the same reason that saying free will doesn’t exist is nonsensical. How can one prove the non-existence of an incoherent idea? I can prove that a square circle doesn’t exist in the sense that it’s a logical contradiction but I can’t actually go out and collect solid evidence that square circles don’t exist because what would that evidence even look like? All I can hope to do is convince you that square circles are incoherent. The same is true about free will, the self and the meaning of life. I can’t prove to you that those things don’t exist in the sense of drawing up a chart or a logical argument. I can only hope to show you that the concept itself makes no sense by getting you to examine it more closely. So, let’s examine the meaning of life, more closely.
Examining the Meaning of Life
Human adults have a strong tendency to infer agency in explanations of regular patterns in nature. Children and infants especially do, before they know how the world actually works. There was a study in developmental psychology published at the University of Berkeley in which preverbal infants were also indicated to have this bias. See the link below.
This bias is human nature. It remains true across every culture and every society. We didn’t understand how life on earth came to be, so what did we do? We invented an intelligent agent called god to be the cause. We didn’t understand why the stars shined or why the sun rose or what made the tides go in and out. Must be god or gods. This god or gods also played an important role in giving us a strong sense of morality and ultimate purpose. Morality was simply the will of god. The purpose of life was enter some version of heaven. Even godless religions had enlightenment as a goal. In any case, the point is there was some clear, well-defined goal.
Now, we have scientific explanations for life and the atheists among us have “outgrown” the god hypothesis. And as we learned Darwinian evolution produced life and not a god, we had to think of alternative sources of morality and meaning because god no longer existed in our minds to provide us those things. I’ve already talked about a moral framework based on hypothetical imperatives which is universal and does not require a god. See the link below.
So, morality is safe despite a godless world. But meaning is different. It doesn’t seem so easily replaced. At least, the strong sense of ultimate purpose we had before seems difficult to replace. The basic problem is this: There’s nothing “written in the clouds” telling us the point of life is. Nothing about the way the world is tells us how it should be (morality) and nothing about the way the world is tells us what matters in it (meaning), and it seems that nothing ever could.
Come to think of it, if there were an ultimate purpose we’d probably rebel against it. If you were told what job you had to do for the rest of your life, you wouldn’t be happy about it. Now imagine being told the purpose of your whole life as some divine dictate. That’s exactly the purpose god served, and it was oppressive.
Ignoring the fact that there’s no evidence for god, even if we suppose god could give us ultimate purpose, who is to say god is right about it? Maybe god has the purpose of life wrong. How could we ever demonstrate god has the purpose right beyond assuming it? So god doesn’t really provide ultimate purpose either.
Of course I’m talking about the purpose of life as if it makes sense in order to trick your brain into seeing why it doesn’t. Why can’t we confirm or test the meaning of life? Is it because life has no meaning? Well no. No one has ever proved that life has no meaning. Why is that? You see, the reason for all my rhetorical questions is to get you to see that the “meaning of life” in the universal sense is incoherent. That’s the reason these questions don’t have good answers.
If you’re starting to get uncomfortable that life has no apparent meaning, then consider this: Since the “meaning of life” in an ultimate sense is incoherent, a mere brain-glitch, it makes no more sense to be upset that life has no apparent ultimate purpose than it does to be upset about square circles not existing or that free will is incoherent. There is no physical or nonphysical reality that the phrase “ultimate meaning of life” maps to. It’s a null pointer.
Despite the lack of “ultimate” meaning in life, there are other perspectives we can take which do provide purpose. Darwinian evolution is one such perspective.
Many people mistakenly think that our evolutionary purpose is simply to self-replicate. This is false on its face. Human offspring are not copies of their parents, therefore we don’t really self-replicate, even if the offspring have similarities. We are complex survival machines. As Richard Dawkins puts it in his book The Selfish Gene, we are lumbering robots that replicators made to survive, the replicators being genes. In evolutionary terms, ensuring the survival of our genes is our purpose. It’s why we are here in the first place.
There is so much more to ensuring the survival of genes than procreation. For instance there is fighting off predators, collecting food and resources to ensure the lumbering robot can maintain and associating with other lumbering robots for survival benefits. One might even self-destruct if it’s necessary for the survival of other members of the tribe. Your family shares your genes. So, if they are in danger and you’re able to save them, that may override your drive to survive since it would preserve more of your genetic material than protecting yourself would. You can see now that the survival of our replicators that build us doesn’t always coincide with our own survival.
The evolutionary perspective is the gene’s perspective of what humans are here for. But we are not genes. We are human beings. Genes cannot feel pain, remorse, anger, happiness, ecstasy or contentment. So from a moral standpoint, who cares about genes beyond their necessity for creating us? We have as much moral obligation to preserve our genes as we do to rocks. While the gene’s eye view is an interesting perspective for meaning, it’s not a satisfying answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” because it carries no significance besides intellectual entertainment.
The final perspective I want to talk about carries the most significance. If you want to talk about the meaning of life, what better place to start than your own life perspective?
Why should purpose have to be divine? Doesn’t it make more sense to talk about meaning and purpose as whatever makes you personally fulfilled? For example your life’s purpose could come from relationships, experiences, hobbies, self-discovery, doing good, helping others, etc. The beauty of the personal sense of meaning is you get to decide it. It varies varies from person to person. Everyone can have their own individual, unique sense of purpose in the world.
At the end of the day this is really the only useful notion of meaning. There’s no apparent “divine” meaning in the universe and if there were we’d probably rebel against it. We can of course observe our purpose from other points of view such as that of a gene or even a factory. From the perspective of a factory, the purpose of humans is to keep it running. But those perspectives are mostly just entertaining intellectual exercises and not what we really mean when we talk about our lives having meaning.
In summary, you should look inward for meaning. Don’t try to find meaning for your life outside of your life. You’ll become a nihilist not because your life is meaningless but because you’re using a definition of meaning which has no personal significance to you. You’re just defining yourself into a corner on purpose. In looking for meaning “out there”, you overlook the gold mine of meaning within. You give your own life meaning in each moment and there’s no reason it has to come from anywhere else.